The middle-aged woman who stood at John and Gail Wessellses’ front door wore a fragile smile. She gripped the push-handles of a wheelchair bearing the strapped-in figure of another woman: limp, unable to speak or gesture, her eyes vacant, her hands turned unnaturally inward. This was Lisa, she said, her adult daughter who had been in a coma for 12 years.

The mother had heard about the Wessellses’ ministry to the comatose through a friend. Now, as she wheeled her daughter into John and Gail’s living room, she leaned down and whispered, “Isn’t this wonderful, Lisa? These people have a healing ministry.”

John and Gail stole a familiar glance at each other. They had seen such hope in many others. John turned to the mother with a warm smile. “We have to tell you,” he began gently, “we don’t have a healing ministry.”

No? The mother was puzzled.

“We believe Jesus can heal,” Gail explained. “But we believe God wants to do something even deeper for your daughter.”

They talked a while—about Lisa, the accident that crushed her once-vibrant life, and what her mother had endured as a single parent in caring for her 12 long years. The Wessellses listened intently. They understood the pain.

Finally, John brought out his 12-string guitar. “We’re just going to worship the Lord with you,” he said. “You know how comforting it is when you know you’re in the Lord’s presence? Well, that’s what God wants to do for Lisa. We’re simply going to minister to Jesus. And we’re going to trust him to touch her, because he can reach her where we can’t.”

John began the chorus of a familiar praise song. Gail and the mother joined in. And for the next half hour they simply sang, worshiped, prayed, and praised God quietly. Before they finished, Lisa’s mother was crying softly. She knew something significant was taking place. Her daughter’s low groans had turned into sighs of soothing. A peace had settled over the room.

The mother looked up with grateful tears. She said she had not met many people who treated her daughter like a human being. Gail smiled. “If I were in Lisa’s shoes,” Gail said, “I’d want someone to encourage me in the Lord.”

Reaching the unreachable

The vast majority of people John and Gail Wessells meet through their ministry suffers deeply with no clear answers. The tragedy that continues day after day for someone in a coma—and the pain felt by their families, a pain that often seems unbearable—is something only the love of Christ can touch.

“People in comas get discouraged and depressed like anybody else, no matter how unaware they seem,” Gail says. “They need to be fed the living Word and to be encouraged just the way we do.”

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The Wessellses began their unique ministry in 1988. For several months, John, a worship leader in a local church and a traveling music minister, had been praying for guidance from God about their lives and ministry.

During that period of prayer, Gail received a phone call: a young relative had been involved in a motorcyle accident and lay comatose in a nearby hospital. A few days later, while visiting him, John, now 38, and Gail, 34, spontaneously began worshiping God at their relative’s bedside and noticed that, as they sang, the young man’s countenance changed. At that moment, John and Gail sensed God’s new calling for them.

Today John, a tall, bearded, former college football player with a sharp wit, spends his weeks in head-injury centers in upstate Cortland, New York, and in Milford, Pennsylvania. And by day, his petite, brunette wife with the fiery brown eyes cares for their two-year-old son, John Samuel, at their apartment home in Greene, New York. Funded fully by donations, the Wessellses also minister to comatose people who are cared for at home, counsel their families, and occasionally speak to church groups.

John and Gail admit that they get a lot of puzzled looks when they explain what they do. “The problem is that most of us don’t see as God sees,” John says. “We judge a person’s worth by how much he can produce or respond, rather than on the eternal weight of his soul before God.… Even though their brains have been damaged, their hearts and spirits are still alive. And Jesus longs to touch their innermost being.”

Yet, for the most part, John notes, people who lie helpless in comas have been abandoned by society, by despairing family members, and even by their churches.

Serenity and salvation

John has discovered that some people in comas are open to the gospel in a way they probably would not be if they had perfect health.

Consider a young man named Bob. Initially, John knew only that a car accident had tragically cut short his active life and sent him deep into a low-level coma. For months his eyes had remained closed, and his face constantly wore a pained expression. But over a few weeks of worshiping together, John noticed a change in Bob’s expression: it had become serene. Even a nurse commented on it.

Eventually, Bob began to emerge from his low-level coma. Then, one day as John entered the hospital, a therapist stopped to tell John that Bob had begun to answer yes-or-no questions by nodding or shaking his head. John raced to the therapy room.

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There sat Bob in his wheelchair, grinning. “Bob,” John probed, “do you remember when I came in with my guitar?” Bob nodded slowly: Yes. “Did you ask Jesus into your heart?” Yes. “Has the Holy Spirit been ministering to you every day?” Again, Yes.

A few weeks later, all of John’s questions vanished when Bob began with the help of his therapist to call the Wessellses. John knew that his friend’s conversion was genuine.

Ministering angels

Encouragement from episodes like that led to an encounter with the DeMartino family whose comatose son, Wayne John, was diagnosed as “nonliving” after an operation to remove part of his skull.

For months, Wayne John’s mother, Midge, had been crying out to God for help. Having only a nominal knowledge of God, she prayed, “Send me an angel.” When she heard about John, she believed that God had answered her prayer.

Eventually, through the Wessellses’ ministry of compassion to Wayne John, one by one the entire DeMartino family came to Christ. And today, John and Gail hold weekly Bible studies in the DeMartinos’ home. “If God chooses to heal Wayne John, that would be great,” Midge says. “But if he stays in this state for the rest of his life, and the rest of our lives, I’ll still rejoice because of all the Lord has done.”

The DeMartinos illustrate yet another fruit of the Wessellses’ ministry: God harvests the bystanders as well as the comatose.

Not long ago, John and a friend, Luke, were singing praise songs to a patient when they heard a commotion in the hall. They looked out the door and saw a man rolling toward them in a wheelchair, crying and pointing to his heart.

John asked what was wrong. As the man haltingly formed a few words, John realized that the music had touched him. “Do you know Jesus?” John asked. The man shook his head. “Would you like to? Would you like for us to pray with you?”

The man nodded his head, almost violently. As Luke and John began to pray with him, he began praising God, tears of joy rolling down his face.

“As long as a human being has breath on this earth, he possesses a soul,” John says. “And ultimately it is that precious, living soul that God is concerned about.”

By Scott and Joy Sawyer, staff members of Times Square Church in New York City.

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